The Justice Trade: Tartarus
This review is by Jeremy Wong, my friend, colleague, and disaster on the Cleveland Public Library’s resources.
Anyway, here are some stats…
An adventure for Ashen Stars
In this scenario of exploration and confrontation in a devastatingly hostile environment, hard-bitten lasers, who know enough not to touch the gooey stuff or take off their helmets in an untested biosphere, investigate the demise of a survey crew doomed by the above mistakes, and more.
96 pg. PDF/Print
Tartarus is one of three adventures in The Justice Trade. Your players investigate the aftermath of a crew akin to Prometheus or Alien. The environment is hostile, alien, and oppressive. The players get to feel smart for knowing the tropes and not falling for them.
Ashen Stars is a GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press. You play as freelance investigators; a mixture of police, bounty hunters, and PIs. It blends Firefly and Star Trek together, and works great. This could work in any sci-fi game that isn’t Star Wars; its focus on viruses, body horror, and weird stuff, in particular, make it good for Eclipse Phase or Mothership if you don’t mind converting.
I’m biased, though. I adore Ashen Stars.
This is one of the great ones.
So, I’ve referred to sci-fi movies a few times. That’s by design. “Tartarus” feels like you’re investigating the aftermath of Prometheus. A stand-in for the eccentric Charles Bishop Weyland, founder of Definitely Not Weyland-Yutani, hired a crew and went to a Bad Planet. Then, he went missing, and the players’ investigators need to find out what happened.
That core objective means they’ll be putting the pieces back together. They get a crew manifest, so they can check off each death as they find them. It’s excellent, and lets them feel smart while speculating grisly - and occasionally tragic - deaths.
This module also has some excellent sub-systems, like the dangers of landing and taking off the unstable planet’s surface. They all reinforce Ashen Stars’ focus on player competency and tough choices.
Several grisly opportunities to torment players arise.
The first is the chance of horrible mutagenic infection. The poor victims of the first landing party - the ones that the players are investigating - all made some very bad choices. Bad choices every character in a horror movie makes. Running the wrong way, splitting up, taking off their helmet - the list goes on. Infected players have a variety of gross consequences in their future, though the virological mastery present in the setting of Ashen Stars makes this a temporary affair. You get all the grossness, but not the gloom of losing a character who mutates into a monstrous worm.
I mentioned choices earlier. This adventure is full of them. Where do we land? Who goes spelunking in the flooded remains of a science lab? Do we try to raise it from the muck of the planet’s surface? Do we kill the mutated remains of a crew-member? Do we try to reason with the megalomaniacal biomutant? Do we think the benefits of scientific discovery outweighs the evil committed to acquire it? The list goes on.
This is a much more brutal adventure than many other Ashen Stars offerings. You don’t want to make your players uncomfortable, but the Cronenberg body horror is almost sure to weird them out. If you take out that threat of infection, all you’re left with is the threat of a few monsters (there are only three or so) and environmental hazards like falling or heat.
It’s a blatant rip-off of a sci-fi movie. But that can be forgiven; every GM has cribbed something from a movie they loved or hated.
Flexible, simple, effective. Spooky without being melancholic. Payoffs happen and lead up to a climax. A readable synopsis and clear through-line make this easy to grok.
Among my favorite scenes is the chance to meet “The Ur,” an ancient being that rips off the Engineers from Alien and Prometheus. This one has a much more interesting and understandable backstory than the Engineers or David ever did.
My players loved meeting this guy. He’s big, scary, lethal, and merciless. And yet, you want to meet him - who doesn’t want to meet the last survivor of an ancient precursor race?
Buy or not buy?
If you’re looking for a scary sci-fi adventure, then get this one. “Tartarus” is a real achievement in adapting a piece of fiction from the screen to the tabletop; it takes what makes the inspirations great and focuses on replicating those feelings and moments, rather than just having you play through a tabletop version of, say, Dead Space.
If you have any interest or need for a good sci-fi horror module, get it. It’s great as a one-shot or as a part of an ongoing campaign.
Clayton uses his cut of the profits to pay weregild for the NPCs he’s killed.